BOZEMAN – A haunting photograph of an African-American woman whose husband served as a Buffalo Soldier at Fort Assiniboine near Havre about 135 years ago can be credited with a year residency of two noted scholars at Montana State University.
The scholars are Joseph P. Gone, a Montana native and specialist in Native American mental health issues who is serving as Katz Family Endowed Chair in Native American Studies at MSU this academic year, and his spouse, the noted African-American historian and professor Tiya Miles. Both professors at the University of Michigan, they are the recipients of two of academia’s most prestigious grants –he was named a Guggenheim Fellow this year, and in 2011 Miles received a MacArthur Fellowship, often called the “genius grant.”
While Gone is a member of Montana’s Gros Ventre Tribe and was raised in various spots around the state, Miles is from the Cincinnati, Ohio area. Yet, the couple’s year long visit to Montana was Miles’ idea, they said.
Also a recent recipient of a Mellon Foundation New Directions Award in the Humanities, which meant she could study anywhere, Miles was fascinated by the photographs and the stories of other female African-Americans in early Montana and thought she might want to write about it. Additionally, she was interested in the work that was being done in environmental history by MSU history professors such as Brett Walker and Tim LeCain. The Mellon grant that she received allows her to take classes in an area in which she’d like to study more, so she will be on campus taking graduate history courses spring semester.
“And Joe’s relatives still live in Montana and are close by, which meant our children could become better acquainted with that branch of their family,” said Miles, who this fall worked from their rental at the foot of the Bridger Mountains on final edits of her debut novel, “The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts,” which will be published in April by John F. Blair. The novel, which examines slaveholding by Southern Creeks and Cherokees on Georgia plantations in the early 1800s -- has been hailed as reminiscent of the work of Alice Walker and Louise Erdrich. While it is her first novel, she previously published two scholarly works of history.
While Miles has been doing research, Gone has been advising graduate students while serving as the MSU Endowed Chair in Native American Studies, and researching and writing what could be the definitive book on Native American mental health, “Rethinking Psychological Wellness in Indian Country.”
Gone will speak about the topic this Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 6:30 p.m. when he delivers the annual MSU Phyllis Berger Memorial Lecture in the Hager Auditorium of the Museum of the Rockies. The title of Gone’s lecture will be ‘’The Thing Happened as He Wished:’ An American Indian Contribution to a Pluralist Psychology.” Gone’s lecture will address one of the principal questions confronting mental health professionals who serve American Indian communities, which is how best to offer genuinely helpful services that do not simultaneously reproduce colonial power relations. His lecture will survey several facets of an alternate indigenous cultural psychology that continue to shape life and experience on a Montana Indian reservation.
The story of the couple’s meeting, and their own life stories, could also be a topic for a book.
Gone said he was adopted when he was about six months old by Sharon Juelfs, who raised him in a variety of Montana cities, including Wolf Point, Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, Big Fork, and Kalispell, where he graduated from high school. His Native family still lives primarily on or near the Fort Belknap Reservation in the vicinity of Harlem, Mont.
After high school graduation, Gone attended Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, but soon decided that Bible college wasn’t for him. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in West Germany. While in the Army, he was inspired by his unit leaders, and looked into what it would take to become an officer.
“I learned that I needed a Congressional nomination to West Point, so I wrote a letter to Pat Williams, who was then Montana’s U.S. representative, and asked him if he’d nominate me,” Gone said. “I was surprised when he wrote back and said sure.”
Gone was one of just a few former enlisted men, as well as one of a few Native Americans, to attend West Point at the time. While there, he became fascinated with the field of psychology, and he also became taken with Harvard University while on a cadet field trip there. He applied, and was accepted, to Harvard just weeks before he had to make a permanent commitment to the military.
“It was intoxicating to be a part of the (Harvard) campus,” Gone said. During his senior year, he was introduced to fellow student Miles.
While Miles has built a strong career studying African-American history, Gone was trained as a clinical psychologist, building a career as an expert in Native American health in the field of community psychology.
When they are not on campus, they have been traveling throughout the state with their children – 10-year-old twin daughters and a 6-year-old son – where Miles is tracing “fascinating” stories of early African-American settlers in Montana.
“I have just seen the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Being in Bozeman is so perfect because it’s at the center of the research area I need to reach.”
Miles said that she and Gone have enjoyed their low-key roles at MSU.
“We have been in classrooms, researching, talking to others and taking in other people’s thoughts. That’s the best position to be in when you are learning,” she said. “We’re really enjoying it.”
Joseph P. Gone, email@example.com